Egyptian Hunger Striker Faces Death


"In fact the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not of the dictatorship." This is an excerpt from the post that cost 26-year-old blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad his freedom. He is currently serving a three-year sentence in Egypt’s El-Marg prison for "insulting the military institute and spreading false reports aiming to disturb public security".

Maikel is one of more than 10,000 Egyptians put through the military justice system since the revolution began in January.

His case, however, stands out as one of a handful where the charges are clearly political in nature. In these cases criticism of the military was cited by the authorities as the reason for arrest and detention. Of all these cases, Maikel’s is perhaps the most extreme, with a three-year sentence issued and implemented. Many of the others brought in on such charges (including 70-year-old retired army officer Hassan Bahgat) have been released with suspended sentences hanging over their heads to deter against further dissent.

It seems likely that this harsh treatment is partially the result of an old grudge the army harbours against him. Maikel is a pacifist who has advocated peaceful engagement with Israel and even posted in Hebrew on his blog. He risked jail before the revolution by refusing to take part in Egypt’s compulsory military service. He was granted an exemption on health grounds due to a heart condition. However, it was his 8 March post, in which he argued — contrary to many of his fellow revolutionaries — that the Egyptian people and army were never "one hand", that was presented as evidence, along with Facebook comments.

Maikel’s father Nabil and brother Mark told New Matilda that Maikel is a bookish, gentle, and brave young man who stands by his ideas. They praised his intelligence and political insight, pointing out that since the time of his arrest, more and more activists have come to share his views regarding the role of the military.

They also told New Matilda about the difficulties they had faced in attempting to advocate on his behalf. They were given false information regarding court dates and prison locations. Witnesses for the defence such as victims of the abuse carried out by the military and documented by Maikel, including the infamous virginity tests, who came to testify that no "false reports" had been spread were not allowed to speak in the trial.

Maikel’s father says has even received threats from the military, via intermediaries. These have come in the form of questions: does he want to lose both sons?

One story they told that demonstrates just how limited freedom of speech is in post-Mubarak Egypt — and where the priorities of the military lie. Maikel’s father was being interviewed by a crew from BBC Arabic outside the courthouse. He and the crew were all arrested. They were only released quickly because the BBC journalists had a pressing appointment to interview Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Egypt at the time.

Clinton said in June that the United States was "disturbed by the reports of efforts to crack down on journalists, and bloggers and judges and others,", but has not spoken again on the issue.

With the international community — including Australia — silent on the issue, it has fallen to Maikel’s family, along with local and international activists to speak out on his behalf.

Maikel, however, is not only relying on the efforts of others. He is engaging in the kind of non-violent resistance he has advocated in his writing and has started a hunger strike.

On Tuesday 23 August he stopped all food, ingesting only water (many hunger strikers also drink juice and the like, which slows the deterioration of their health). On 25 August, following a formal complaint from his father, the prison authorities officially acknowledged his hunger strike. The same day they moved him to solitary confinement and began to threaten him, saying they would charge charge him with drug possession, thereby extending his sentence.

On 30 August he stopped drinking water and taking his medication. The next day he fell into a coma and was taken to the prison hospital. On 2 September he re-commenced drinking water and taking his medication. He has said however that he will stop again for 24 hours today, in solidarity with a planned protest in Tahrir Square.

The hunger strike is not the only way Maikel has sought to bring attention to the abuse he has suffered at the hands of the military.

Statements apparently written by him in prison and smuggled out have appeared on a Facebook page titled Free Maikel Nabil, including one where he announced his intention to begin the hunger strike. It ends with the assertion that he hopes to bring attention to his case, not simply to hasten his own release, but to help bring down the whole unfair system that has imprisoned him. It closes with the following words:

I will not accept any more injustice, and if my death is the price to be paid to put an end to the excesses of the Military Justice Administration, then it is a small price to pay.

Thank you very much.

Maikel Nabil Sanad Ibrahim
El-Marg Public Prison
23 August 2011

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.